Mark Liebenow believes men have been conditioned for too long to hide their grief. It’s time to talk about it.
Men have emotions the size of an ocean, but they have an emotional toolbox the size of a walnut for talking about them. Or so we’ve been told. For some of us it’s true. For many of the rest, we just have our priorities mixed up.
When we try to express our grief through this walnut-sized hole, we’re so unsure what’s going on that the pressure builds up and what comes through is so forceful that it knocks people over. This is a problem for men and women, because we no longer speak the language of grief.
My impression is that men talk less about their emotions than women do. Possibly a lot less. You’re probably saying, “Duh!” For many people, showing their grief in public feels like a sign of weakness, of not being in control.
Think of the recent division of opinions about Vice President Joe Biden sharing his grief. A world leader, a person with enormous power, was being human, and some people didn’t like this. My feeling is, if you can’t cry when your son dies, whether you’re male or female, then I wouldn’t trust you as a leader. Part of being human is expressing what you’re feeling instead of bottling it up.
Women aren’t stigmatized the same way as men for showing strong emotions. They’re stigmatized in a different way.
My impression is that women often get together to talk about life issues. And yet, even though they have a support network, I think women are also reluctant to share their grief, especially when it lasts longer than a month. Not talking about grief is not a gender issue, it’s a societal problem.
Many of us don’t share our grief with anyone until our friends force us to talk, if we have good friends. Or we overwork until we collapse, hoping grief will go away, which it won’t. Then our lives fall apart and we are put into therapy by professional health people where we are required to talk.
I could have been one of them.
When I was early in grief, I looked at every resource and found little that dealt with the actual experience. Thankfully there are more resources available today, although I still haven’t found many that are written by men.
I wasn’t good at expressing my emotions before death kicked me in the heart. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to share. I wasn’t sure what I was feeling, and I didn’t know how to express it.
Men of my generation, and well as the men of the generation before and after, didn’t learn how to express feelings when we were growing up. I moved through life perched in my head, and I took enormous pride in getting more work done than anyone else. Emotions got in my way because they weren’t productive.
A couple of matters kept me going as I struggled to make sense of grief.
Every week for a long time, one of my friends, and some of my wife’s friends whom I barely knew, would show up on my doorstep wanting to hear how grief was going. It was so consistent that I thought someone was coordinating the visits, although I never found out if this was true. I became comfortable sharing because people kept coming back wanting to listen.
There was also an older man, a friend of my in-laws, who lost his wife the year before me. Whenever I thought I was grieving wrong, he’d reassure me that I was doing fine. Simply knowing that my journey was likely to take a year or more instead of one month, kept me from panicking.
It doesn’t help that in our society we don’t talk about grief. It doesn’t help that we hide death away in hospitals and funeral homes. It doesn’t help that we have forgotten the rites, rituals, and observances that used to guide people through grief.
Faith can help us cope, but it can also encourage us to deny we are grieving. Biden is going through an honest struggle with his faith. In my compassionate Christian congregation, no one knew what to say for Evelyn dying young and unexpectedly. But I did stumble upon the wisdom of 3000-year-old traditions in Judaism for those who are grieving, and they helped me create a framework for working with grief.
Even if women don’t talk about grief when they get together, they still get together. Even without saying anything about grief, they know they have the support of a group of people as they share their feelings in general ways.
My close male friends were compassionate, intelligent, and verbal, but they hadn’t experienced the grief of a spouse so our discussions ended up rather one-sided. Yet they were willing to be present and listen. I am grateful for them.
My whole point is that we need to encourage grieving men to talk about what is going on inside them. We need to provide opportunities where they can share their few sentences of feelings, because even getting this much out will make them feel better. Quality not quantity is the man’s way. Women would call this “terse;” men call it “to the point.”
Men like to work quietly through their emotions. But grief is a huge event and we need to share with someone about it — friends, support groups, or therapists. It helps to hear someone else’s perspective. We can’t force men to share, but we can let them know that we’re available whenever they feel like sharing, and this leaves the door open.
A one-on-one discussion over coffee is one way to help that isn’t intimidating. If nothing else works, mute the TV during commercial breaks when watching sports and ask how they’re doing. This will give them until the next commercial break to rummage around inside and find something to say. Bring beer.
Men need to talk about what they’re feeling. They need to share their grief before their emotions shut them down, their faces go hard, their hearts turn small and bitter like walnuts, and they no longer care about themselves or anyone else.
Men like to solve problems, but grief isn’t a problem to be solved. We can’t think our way through this. It’s a journey we have to take, and it helps to have someone to talk to on the way.